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Government could fall over pylon project, warns chief whip


Regina Doherty is opposed to the plan

Regina Doherty is opposed to the plan

Regina Doherty is opposed to the plan

GOVERNMENT Chief Whip Regina Doherty has said the Government could crumble if she and the two other Fine Gael ministers from Meath quit office over plans by semi-state agency EirGrid to build overhead pylons in her constituency.

Ms Doherty said she has no intention of "embarrassing" her Cabinet colleagues but insisted she was vehemently opposed to the proposed development of the North-South Interconnector, which would see 300 pylons erected across three counties.

The Fine Gael Cabinet member's comments came as campaigners against the project planned to force the Government to vote on the issue, claiming that for the first time a majority of Dail TDs supported running cables underground.

The group, North East Pylon Pressure (NEPP), believes if plans to run overhead lines through Co Meath, Co Cavan and Co Monaghan were put to the floor of Leinster House, most TDs would favour laying the cables underground.

Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal Damien English and Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People Helen McEntee are both from Meath constituencies that would be affected by the project.

Asked on her local radio station, LMFM, whether there would be an election if she and her Meath colleagues pulled their support for the Government over the pylon project, Ms Doherty said: "It probably would.

"First of all, I don't want an election. I'll fight an election tomorrow and if the people of Meath want to keep me they'll keep me and if they don't I'll go off and sing on the West End or something."

She said it was "not good enough" how the people of Meath were treated by EirGrid during the development of the project. Early last week, Ms Doherty said she "fully supports" constituents who engage in civil disobedience to block the project.

Labour Party Senator Kevin Humphreys said Ms Doherty should resign or she should be sacked by Taoiseach Enda Kenny over her comments.

"She has abdicated the collective responsibility of Cabinet by calling for civil disobedience and this is a serious issue," Mr Humphreys said.

"What will happen next? Will Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan do the same for Portlaoise Hospital and will Transport Minister Shane Ross call for similar action around Stepaside garda station?"

Padraig O'Reilly, of NEPP, said the group would approach both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein with a view to table a private member's motion in the Dail in the New Year.

Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein both support using underground electricity cables, while NEPP also claims to have the support of at least 12 Independents and a number of government ministers.

NEPP will be looking to put pressure on the Government to issue a policy directive to EirGrid to bury the cables.

In a statement, the group said it was time for "political leadership" on undergrounding the project: "The recent general election has seen a significant shift in the numbers supporting an underground policy for the North-South Interconnector project. Sinn Fein policy position has always been one of supporting undergrounding, Fianna Fail announced a similar policy position prior to the last election, and a large number of independent elected representatives, particularly those from rural backgrounds, have expressed support for such a policy."

The issue returned to centre stage last week when EirGrid secured permission from An Bord Pleanala for 299 pylons of about 50 metres high running from Woodland, Co Meath, to Clontiobret, in Co Monaghan.

The pylons will carry high-voltage overhead lines connecting Ireland's electricity infrastructure with that of Northern Ireland.

However, the project is far from certain, with the decision likely to be judicially reviewed and Northern Ireland also awaiting planning permission for its section of the route.

The prospect of Brexit has also raised more uncertainties about the project.

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Many local communities along the route have been fighting the plan for more than a decade, claiming the pylons pose a risk to health and will blight the landscape.

The undergrounding option is considered prohibitively expensive and time-consuming by EirGrid, the State agency responsible for Ireland's electricity infrastructure.

Business groups such as the employers' group Ibec, and EirGrid welcomed the decision by An Bord Pleanala, as saying the North-South Interconnector is essential to securing Ireland's electricity supply.

As well as the 43 TDs in Fianna Fail and 23 in Sinn Fein, the undergrounding option has been supported by six Anti-Austerity and People Before Profit Alliance TDs. Independent supporters include Michael Fitzmaurice, Mattie McGrath, and Seamus Healy.

In a statement issued after the planning decision, Ms Doherty said she was "bitterly disappointed". She predicted there would be "a phase of civil disobedience to hamper" An Bord Pleanala's decision. She said: "I fully support the farmers and landowners in that action."

However, she indicated she will use her Government position to overturn the decision.

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